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Life in Israel - part 5 - Judaism

March 2, 2016



This post is about Judaism


Although there are Jews throughout the world, the uniqueness of Israel is that it is a country defined as a Jewish state.

Because, as an author, I write about events that take place in Israel, most of my characters are Jewish. Some are religious, so I think it's important for my readers to understand what Judaism is and the difference between the different streams of Orthodox Jews.

I must differentiate between Orthodox, and Reform or Conservative Judaism. Israel's non-Orthodox factions are less common (probably unlike in the US, for example) so I will not refer to them, not because they are not important, but because they’re not so relevant to my writing. I will only note that Reform Jews are Jews who have adopted an innovative approach and are more relaxed in terms of Jewish law such as the Joint Meeting (allowing men and women pray together) in the synagogue, and have less strict laws about conversion and marriage, etc.

Thus, in Israel, Orthodox Jews are the mainstream. Even Jews who do not consider themselves religious are not open to the innovation of Reform Judaism.

I suppose that even those who are not familiar with the differences between denominations of Judaism know that Jews who dress in black clothes and grow beards and side locks are very devout. The difficulty is to distinguish between Jews who look outwardly like any western person. Frankly, there are many Jews who do not know how to distinguish between the different streams of religious Jews, though the basic distinction is whether the guy wears a yarmulke and the lady dresses modestly. (Religious guys wear a yarmulke and religious girls normally cover their hair, legs and arms, making sure their knees are covered by their skirt, and their arms are covered by a long-sleeved shirt.) But even among religious non-observant, Jews, there are many distinctions related to the diameter and color of the yarmulke, and skirt/sleeve length. The distinction among girls is even more difficult, because many religious girls do not cover their hair (only married women have to do this) and those who do cover it do not always cover all the hair, so sometimes it seems they just have hair accessories on their heads. Many religious girls (like my sister and my mother for example) tend to wear pants on weekdays (i.e. the days that are not a Saturday or holiday).

I won’t list here all kinds of religious Jews; at the end of the post, there are pictures I've taken to try to clarify what I mean.

According to surveys conducted from time to time in Israel, the majority of the population is not religious, but most people believe in God. That is - most of the population define themselves as Jewish according to their religious belief.

I, by the way, define myself Jewish according to the cultural aspect, because I do not believe in God (the religious God).

A person is defined as Jewish according to his mother. In other words, even if the father is not Jewish, but the mother is, then a person is defined as a Jew, and vice versa: someone born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother would not be Jewish. The second way to be a Jew is to convert to Judaism - and to my knowledge, the process of conversion to Judaism is a difficult process and the most debilitating of all religions.

According to Jewish law, a Jew should live his life in accordance with a religious code set thousands of years ago. The code has been slightly updated over the years, mainly due to technological progress and socio-economic changes. For example, according to Jewish law, you can't light a fire on the Sabbath (Saturday). What about using electricity? According to Jewish law updates, it is also prohibited to use electric lights, but you can set up a timer before the Sabbath so that the lights come on automatically. Using an elevator is also forbidden unless it is a “Sabbath elevator," which stops at every floor and opens and closes without the button being pressed.

The difference between “religious” and “non-religious” is defined by maintaining the code of conduct prescribed by Jewish law. A very observant Jew will follow more of the rules.

As mentioned above, the majority of Israeli Jews define themselves as believers and therefore most of the population wants to be married by a rabbi, have a Jewish burial and celebrate the Jewish holidays. A non-religious Jew may also follow some of the commandments. The difference between secular Jews and religious Jews is expressed in three key aspects of life:

1. Observance of the Sabbath
2. Keeping Kosher
3. Modesty


Sabbath observance involves the most significant ban for the Sabbath and some holidays: the prohibition of work. The ban has also been extended from working on Saturday to many other activities such as driving a car, turning on the light, writing, using money, cooking, sewing and much more... the difference between observant Jews (Orthodox) and other religious Jews is their level of observance of the prohibitions.


Keeping Kosher has many rules, but they are divided mainly into three principles: a ban on eating certain animals (mainly pig, but there are other animals and fish that are forbidden to Jews); the complete separation of meat and dairy products, including waiting at least three hours after eating meat; and laws related to Passover, which is celebrated in the spring (around April or May). On this holiday, there is a strict prohibition against eating products with gluten.



On the subject of modesty - while the difference between religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews is not significant with regard to keeping Kosher and the Sabbath rules - this is the main feature that distinguishes between the two groups. With regard to modesty, religious Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox are closer to the non-religious public. The laws apply mainly to women. A religious woman will not expose much of her skin in public. There are religious women who will not wear pants. A religious woman will never wear a strappy tank top and many religious women will not go to a pool where there is mixed bathing for men and women, or swim in the sea. Some religious Jews won't wear red. In addition, regarding relations between men and women, most religious people (at all levels of piety) will not have sex before the wedding and a large portion of them will be careful not to touch members of the opposite sex ("prohibition of touch"). Personally, I can tell you that, by the age of eighteen, I had barely even touched a member of the opposite sex. I don’t mean touching of a sexual nature. I mean no contact at all. Once a girl begins to menstruate, she must not touch members of the opposite sex. Not everyone is careful about it, but since I had a religious education, I was not accustomed to the company of the opposite sex. The gender segregation is not limited to education, but also applies to the synagogue, where women sit separately. The separation in ultra-Orthodox circles also applies in other places such as events and weddings. At my wedding, for example, there was no gender segregation, but the women danced separately from the men.


Below are a few pictures of various of religious Jews. Stand on the picture in order to see the explanation.








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